Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21 – 7:89)
Rabbi David Stav
Parshat Naso opens with an account of the Jewish people’s last-minute preparations as they continue their journey to the Promised Land. The Tabernacle (“Mishkan”) at the heart of the encampment has been dismantled, and the members of the Tribe of Levi are entrusted with carrying its holy vessels and other components. Later, the Torah commands Moses to expel anyone with various types of impurities from the camp.
This episode dovetails with the rest of the parsha, since it aims to teach the nation who may approach the site of the Mishkan, and who may not. And then, for no apparent reason, the parsha suddenly begins discussing three ostensibly unrelated topics. The first is the theft of an item that cannot be returned to its owners; the second is the case of the “Sotah”, a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, and how this woman is to be treated. And the third is the case of the Nazir, a person who has decided to repudiate worldly pleasures, whom the Torah instructs on how to behave.
The obvious question is why the Torah chose this juncture to bring up these three subjects. Nachmanides (Ramban), the great 12th-century sage, wrote: “After the Mishkan was erected and the impure were kept away from it, some of the young people were made into Nazirites, who would guard the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, to stand before God, to serve Him, and to make blessings in His name.”
According to Ramban, the construction of the Mishkan prompted droves of people to try to draw closer to God in various ways, and because only the priests were allowed to enter the Mishkan, another track needed to be devised for worshipping God, which took the form of Nazirism. Nevertheless, what does the subject of the Sotah have to do with our parsha?
Ramban continues: “And because [the Torah] had just discussed the pedigree of the People of Israel, it gave them the laws and precepts concerning the identification of the mamzerim, who were not born to their mother’s husbands, when a person’s heart grows suspicious regarding his wife.” Since the previous parsha dealt with the pedigrees of all the tribes and the families within, the Torah must also caution us to verify whether these children are indeed our children.
This seems like a thoroughly odd explanation, though, since nothing in the text of the Torah alludes to encouraging men to suspect their wives of adultery. Moreover, according to Halacha, even if the woman is known to have cheated on her husband, we can assume that the child is legitimate, since the basic Halachic rule is that if any suspicion arises regarding the identify of the biological father of a married woman, we are to assume that the biological father is the woman’s husband, and none other.
This is why we do not suspect children of being illegitimate if there is no clear-cut evidence to that effect. Nonetheless, the question remains unanswered: why does the Torah mention the issue of the Sotah at this point?
I would like to take a closer look at three words that are repeated in this parsha for no apparent reason. When the Torah describes a woman suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, it states: “Any man, if his wife will go astray and trespass against him”. In Modern Hebrew, the word “me’ilah”, which appears in this verse, means misfeasance, or breach of trust. But in the Torah, the word is associated with the world of the Temple and sanctification. If we want to describe theft of someone else’s property, we will use the word “gneiva”, but when the Torah wants to describe the same action with regard to Temple property, it uses the word “me’ilah”.
Why, then, does the Torah use the word “me’ilah” with respect to a woman who is unfaithful to her husband? If we revisit the episode of stealing from a convert, we see that the same word – “me’ilah” – resurfaces. “A man or woman who commits any of man’s sins by trespassing against God…” If the case being discussed involves stealing from a convert, why is this called “me’ilah”, instead of “g’zeilah” (stealing)?
Seemingly, the Torah has produced a fascinating new interpretation of having the Mishkan dwell among the people. A person’s home and family are analogous to the Temple. Consequently, if they are harmed, it is considered “me’ilah”. Stealing from others (especially helpless converts) is akin to trespassing against holiness itself.
A person might naively believe that a Mishkan, the Temple, or a synagogue, are holy places in which the Divine Presence dwells, and that he or she must exhibit a decorum appropriate to the place and its status.
However, the truth that the Torah is trying to teach us is that holiness and sanctity dwell between husbands and wives, too. According to Rabbi Akiva, “They [the husband and wife] merited to have the Divine Presence between them”.
A person could make his bedroom a holy place for him and his wife, and any infringement of this sanctity is “me’ilah”, trespassing, not just against the trust that exists between the husband and wife. It is trespassing against the highest order of sanctity.
The same applies to the relationship between man and fellow man. A person who steals from his fellow man discovers that he has rejected the world order that God Himself has instituted, and that he has breached the trust that forms the foundation of the entire world.
As the People of Israel prepare to embark on a journey with the Mishkan, the Torah teaches us that the Divine Presence can truly dwell within each and every one of us. It depends only on us and on how we choose to live our lives.